From the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, Olsson’s is the oldest family-owned and operated salt company in Australia. We chat to Alexandra Olsson about how the family business produces its unique salt varieties.
When did your family begin producing salt?
Olsson’s sea salt is made in False Bay, just north of Whyalla in South Australia and in Port Alma, near Rockhampton in Queensland, on the southern end of The Great Barrier Reef.
In 1949, my grandfather, Norman, my father Charles and Uncle Malcolm formed Olsson Industries making pressed mineral and salt blocks for livestock as a direct result of requests from graziers for someone to produce supplements to meet the nutritional needs of their sheep and cattle during the severe drought that started in 1947 and continued until 1952. To service their growing business with salt, Uncle Malcolm and my father purchased the leases to Pacific Salt works in 1954 in Warooka, Yorke Peninsular, South Australia.
A few years after this, the BHP salt leases became available just north of Whyalla. My father took over these leases and that’s where we take most of our salt from today.
My father also built another salt works himself up in Queensland in the ’80s in between Bajool and Port Alma (east of Rockhampton). It took him five years of digging out the mangrove swamps to make the pans and that is where we make our Macrobiotic Salt: naturally high in marine minerals and trace elements and similar to French Grey salts or Celtic Salt.
How is your salt produced?
Salt – sodium chloride – is a chemical compound that has the formula NaCl and typically 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride. Since the body cannot manufacture sodium or chloride, they are ‘essential’ nutrients. Solar salt is produced by the action of sun and wind on seawater in large ponds. This process is called solar evaporation and this type of salt is called Solar Sea Salt. Salt crystals start to form when the brine concentration reaches 25.8 per cent Sodium Chloride (NaCl). At this point the brine is moved to what is called a “crystalliser pond” where the salt will begin to drop out of the water, forming a layer of salt on the pond. Olsson’s Sea Salt is then harvested, dried and packaged. Because Olsson’s sea salt has as its only ingredient seawater from two of the world’s most pristine oceans, the result is one of purest sea salts available. There are no chemical processes involved in the manufacture of our product, which is why we can guarantee that it is perfectly natural and pure.
What are the health benefits of salt?
Salt is essential not only to life, but to good health. Sodium (and by sodium, I mean sodium in salt) regulates fluid balance and is absolutely necessary for movement, nerve impulses, digestion and the healing of wounds. Doctors often recommend replacing water and salt lost in exercise (to combat hyponatremia). Increased salt intakes have been used successfully to combat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, with some very satisfying results.
Unlike common salt (which is just sodium chloride), natural Sea Salt (from sea water) contains sodium as well as many other important trace minerals in a balance similar to the extra cellular fluids in the body. One of the key benefits of Macrobiotic Sea Salt is sea water (from which Olsson’s Macrobiotic Sea Salt is made) has a relative mineral composition almost identical with that of the blood, so when sodium is excreted from the body, other essential minerals salts such as potassium, magnesium and trace elements are also excreted.
As the seawater for the Macrobiotic Sea Salt slowly moves from ocean to salt pan, its salt content keeps rising and the salt crystals are enriched with health-enhancing minerals. The lower sodium content allows for more bioavailable magnesium (in chloride form), calcium and potassium, as well as trace elements such as copper, zinc, iron, manganese, and even minute amounts of iodine and fluoride. Being totally natural – it is unrefined and unwashed and contains no additives – Olsson’s Macrobiotic sea salt retains all these qualities. Olsson’s Macrobiotic Sea Salt is the first natural “celtic-style” or “grey” sea salt (they call it sel gris in France) produced in Australia. This salt actually tastes like the ocean.
How has the business adapted to the appreciation of different salt varieties in cooking?
Olsson’s is the first company in Australia to produce “flat” Sea Salt Flakes which are similar to the French “fleur de sel” sea salt flakes. This type of sea salt flake is extremely delicate and easily crumbled in the fingers. Many other salt flakes have a “pyramid” shape, making their structure more durable and as a consequence, less delicate.
Olsson’s Macrobiotic Sea Salt is the first natural “celtic-style” sea salt produced in Australia. Harvested by hand, it remains free from any additives or preservatives. Unprocessed, unwashed and unrefined, Olsson’s Macrobiotic Sea Salt retains a high natural balance of sea minerals and marine trace elements. It’s easy to taste the difference between sea salt and non-sea salt.
In 2016, we launched our Red Gum Smoked Salt in collaboration with Ross Lusted (The Bridge Room) and Charlie Costelloe (Pialligo Estate Smokehouse). Smoked salt has been a favourite Scandinavian seasoning for centuries, dating back to the time of vikings who infused sea salt with smoke from native wood fires. The Olsson family has continued this tradition by smoking its Australian sea salt flakes over native river red gum (eucalyptus camaldulensis) for 72 hours in the traditional northern European style at Pialligo Estate Smokehouse, Canberra. The smoking results in a unique salt enhanced with the aromatic and complex characteristics of the Australian red gum wood.
What’s something most people don’t know about salt?
I hear many people say “isn’t salt just salt?” But salt, like wine and olive oil, has “character” which, when not overly processed, speaks about where it comes from, or provenance. I often compare salt to mineral water. Water and salt are relatively simple compounds, H2O and NaCl respectively. If you totally denature water of all other minerals beside H2O it has no flavour whatsoever. It’s the same for salt. It’s the mineral and trace element components of both salt and water that impart the unique characteristics of each. If you can maintain these components then you get a product that is unique to the region from which it is made. That’s why Olsson’s salt is unique; because it references the beautiful oceans from which it is made. And you can taste it in the salt.
The general consensus (Ref The Salt Institute USA) is there are more than 14,000 uses of salt, and our grandmothers were probably familiar with most of them. Many of these uses were for simple things around the home before the advent of modern chemicals and cleaners. However, many uses are still valid today and a lot cheaper and safer than using more sophisticated products.
What should bakers know about salt?
Be careful with quantities. If you over salt, you cannot turn back, so add salt gradually, tasting after every addition until the desired flavour profile is achieved. Also, a teaspoon of crystal salt is a lot saltier than a teaspoon of flaked salt.